Mirroring national trend, international admissions may dip this fall

Like many universities, Iowa State's incoming class of international students this fall might be smaller than in recent years.

Compared to mid-June 2016, the number of first-year undergraduates who have accepted an offer to attend Iowa State is down about one-third, said  Katharine Suski, admissions director. 

The trend for graduate students is less clear. International applications were down about 15 percent as of June 1, said Craig Ogilvie, assistant dean of the Graduate College. But more offers have been extended this year than in 2016, as faculty were urged to broaden their admissions in hopes of avoiding a corresponding drop in enrollment, Ogilvie said.

How many international graduate students actually enroll won't be clear until this fall because graduate student admissions are more decentralized, Ogilvie said. Regardless, the Graduate College is working on plans to boost applications in the future.

"We can't sustain 15 percent drops for too many years," Ogilvie said.

Election fallout

The decline appears to be directly linked to the outcome of the presidential election, Suski said.

"The election was definitely a turning point," she said.

During his campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump advocated for tighter immigration policies, especially from countries that are predominantly Muslim. Since he took office, Trump's administration has attempted to curb immigration from a handful of largely Muslim nations.

Muslim-majority countries account for some of the drop-off, Suski said. But admissions officials have heard concerns beyond visa and other specific immigration issues, she said. Many prospective international students are worried about the political climate in general.

"They use the term 'red state,'" Suski said.

National trend

A number of admissions and international education groups, including the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, earlier this year surveyed nearly 300 admissions officials who recruit international students. Thirty-eight percent said international applications were down, and 77 percent said they were concerned about how many accepted students would actually enroll.

"We're certainly not alone here at ISU," said Krista McCallum Beatty, director of the international students and scholars office.

In general, Suski said schools in the Midwest have been affected the most, while some institutions on the coasts are seeing increased interest from international students. 

The decrease at Iowa State is driven in large part by fewer applications from China, which accounted for more than 40 percent of Iowa State's overall international enrollment in fall 2016. Chinese undergraduates who have accepted an admissions offer for fall are down about 50 percent from 2016, Suski said.

Chinese applicants for graduate programs were off by 15 percent, while applications from India were down by more than 20 percent, Ogilvie said. Students from India and China constitute the overwhelming majority of Iowa State's international graduate students.

Iowa State's 4,131 international students -- nearly half of them graduate students -- represented about 11 percent of the student body in fall 2016. Students from outside the United States were 7 percent of undergraduates in fall 2016, but 38 percent of the graduate student body.

New strategies

Maintaining the diversity of graduate students is critical, Ogilvie said. Bringing talented emerging experts from across the world to study and research with top scholars in Iowa helps the university stay true to its land-grant service mission, albeit on a global scale. Many international graduate students return home to spread their knowledge and expertise, he said.

Leveraging those alumni is a key piece of strengthening international recruitment, Ogilvie said, along with a greater focus on engaging interested students and some possible changes to the communications strategy in countries where applications decreased.

The expected dip in enrollment might not be noticeable at first. Based on accepted offers, the incoming undergraduate class could be just 175 students smaller than last year, Suski said.

But a prolonged decline would have repercussions. International students pay the highest tuition rates, so there's a financial impact. But it also would lessen the diversity of voices and viewpoints on campus, Suski said. 

"It leaves out a richness of discussion and debate in some of our classes," she said.